Feel Art Again: "Judith Beheading Holofernes"

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In response to my recent plea for pre-1900 female artists (at the bottom of the post on Lady Laura Alma-Tadema), reader Megan suggested Artemisia Gentileschi's "Judith Beheading Holofernes." Gentileschi's life and artwork are fascinating, and she is definitely a departure from the male artists we usually discuss in "Feel Art Again." So, without further ado, I present Artemisia Gentileschi and "Judith Beheading Holofernes."

1. Many of Artemisia Gentileschi's paintings are retellings of biblical stories from the women's perspectives. "Judith Beheading Holofernes," of which she painted two versions, is one such example. The first version, completed by 1612 (and shown on the left), is considered to be inspired by Caravaggio's 1598 painting of the same subject and title. The second version (shown on the right) was completed sometime between 1612 and 1622.

2. In the 17th century, although women of nobility and daughters of artists were often trained in artistic endeavors, they were not admitted to art academies and usually did not make their livings through painting. Artemisia Gentileschi was an exception, partly because her father, Orazio Gentileschi, was a well-known and well-regarded artist. He and his colleagues trained Artemisia, and he promoted his daughter's talent to royalty, including the grand duchess of Tuscany, to whom he wrote:

"...she has become so skilled that I can venture to say that she has no peer; indeed, she has produced works which demonstrate a level of understanding that perhaps even the principal masters of the profession have not attained..."

3. Artemisia Gentileschi became a well-connected and well-respected artist, to the extent that several sources note that she "was reckoned not inferior to her father in history, and excelled him in portraits." In 1616, she joined the Florentine Academia del Disegno as its very first female member. She surely met Caravaggio, of whom her father was a follower, and knew Michelangelo Buonarroti the younger, nephew of the great Michelangelo, who held her in high esteem and included her likeness in one of his paintings. She also maintained a long friendship with Galileo Galielei.

4. While she was a teen, Artemisia's father hired Agostino Tassi, a landscape and seascape artist, to teach her perspective. In early 1612, the Gentileschis accused Tassi of raping Artemisia, which sparked a seven month, scandalous and much publicized trial. Although Tassi was imprisoned, the trial was quite a burden for Artemisia and sullied her family's name. Tassi accused Artemisia (plus her mother and sisters) of being a whore and living in a bordello. The trial included physical torture of Artemisia, specifically of her hands, to prove her truthfulness, as well as a vaginal exam to prove her virginity prior to the rape. (Find out more about the trial, including witnesses and statements, here.)

5. After the Tassi trial, Artemisia was married off to a fellow painter, Pietro Antonio di Vincenzo Stiattesi, who had testified on her behalf. The marriage produced four children (only one of whom lived to adulthood), but only lasted 10 years. When the marriage fell apart, Artemisia became the head of her own household and raised her daughter, Prudenza (who also painted), by herself, which was possible since Artemisia was the first woman who managed to live exclusively by her brush. She evidently made "a splendid income," with patronage from the Medici family and King Charles I.

6. For two or three years, Artemisia resided at the court of King Charles I in England. While there, she collaborated with her father on a large commission, the ceiling of the Queen's House at Greenwich.

7. Artemisia Gentileschi's tabloid-worthy life has been the subject of several biographical novels, several stage plays by Sally Clark, and a loosely-based 1997 Golden Globe-nominated film.

A larger version of Gentileschi's first "Judith Beheading Holofernes" is available here, while the second version can be seen larger here.

'Feel Art Again' appears every Tuesday and Thursday.

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April 10, 2008 - 12:05pm
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